RAGBRAI XLV: Older and wiser sort of
Before I talk about this year's RAGBRAI ride from Orange City to Spencer, I'll need to set the stage a bit. If you didn't read or have a fuzzy memory of my inaugural RAGBRAI experience in 2014 when Okoboji hosted its first overnight stop, I'll include it here. If you don't need a refresher or are so inclined to save me some embarrassment please feel free to skip ahead. Please.
(From July 24, 2014)
Well, I made it ... barely.
Milford, as I cruised into town after 70 miles of sun and wind, was a sight for sore eyes -- not too mention a sore rear end!
My RAGBRAI ride ran the gamut of possible experiences. It was both thrilling and challenging. I felt a sense of town pride in each community we passed through and a sense of community between the riders. All said, it was an experience I will never forget and one I hope to enjoy again in the future ... but not the near future.
On Sunday morning, Tessa and I got a little bit of a late start, so I didn't have much time to get breakfast. I figured I would grab something on the way, but she insisted that I eat something more substantial.
"Eat some oatmeal, or a banana," she said. "You're going to need something right away and I read somewhere that bananas protect against muscle cramps, reduce swelling and provide a ton of energy for endurance sports."
"I don't need a stinking banana," I scoffed. "It's only a bike ride. It's not like I'm doing a triathlon or something."
So, we met halfway, and I grabbed a donut and a bottle of Gatorade at the gas station on my way out of town.
That was the first of my many mistakes.
We got on the road and I downed my "breakfast of champions" on the way. Not able to actually get into Rock Valley city limits, I joined a handful of other riders and hopped on the route on the outskirts of town at about 8 a.m.
The temperature was cool, so cool that Tessa worried I may need a jacket -- with an expected high of 90 and a heat advisory in effect, I passed.
The first stretch to Hull was a piece of cake -- or pie, to be RAGBRAI appropriate.
There, we were greeted with a free bag of RIPS candy, since Hull is home to the Foreign Candy Company.
A vendor selling bloody marys and beer was enthusiastically greeted by one of the riders, making for one of the funnier moments of the day. Nothing like starting a 70-mile bike ride with a 9 a.m. cocktail. That's my kind of guy!
The next stretch to Boyden was equally enjoyable.
As we wound our way through the beautiful streets of Boyden, we heard shouts of encouragement from locals camped out in lawn chairs on their front yards. The park area and splash pad in town looked to be packed with entertainment as the ride slowed to a walk, but not wanting to stop, I kept right through on my way to Sheldon.
The sun was starting to peak at that point and the cool breeze was now a fiercely hot blast out of the southeast.
As I cruised into Orab country, my stomach was begging for fuel, so I stopped and grabbed a prime rib sandwich and a little respite on a shaded bench in the city park.
This is also where I realized my second error. At the 24-mile mark, I finally took my first drink of water. I'd been so excited to that point, that I had completely forgotten to keep myself hydrated. As I ate, I chugged my entire water bottle dry and stopped in a gas station to refill on my way out of town.
Exiting Sheldon, we finally had our first tailwind of the trip. As I turned to head north, I felt a surge of energy from the food and water, and with the wind to my back I took off like a rocket! My third mistake.
Instead of conserving my energy, I spent it all on that short stretch of highway. I came to this realization as I turned to head east to Melvin and was smacked in the face by the unrelenting wind.
The 20-mile stretch was the longest of the day, and my legs could definitely tell, as every single rider that I passed on my way north now cruised right on by.
A few miles outside of Melvin, I started to cramp up. I battled through the pain, however, and pedaled into city limits before I laid down under a shade tree and finished off every drip of water I had on me.
I sat there for about a half an hour before I felt like I had enough energy to get back on the route. Needing to refill my water bottle, I stopped at three separate vendors -- none of which had a single bottle. So, I grabbed a sports drink instead and hopped back on the road.
This is when my lack of preparation started to sink in.
The nine miles to May City were rough, to say the least.
Every couple of miles or so my left thigh would cramp and I would have to hop off my bike to walk it out. Then, I would hop back on, ride for a bit and then hop off and walk out another cramp. I stopped at a watermelon stand just outside of May City and bought three bottles of water, chugged one and filled up my own bottle.
This was really the act of a desperate man. I was already way behind and there was no hope to catch up. I could either call it quits or tough out the next 17 or so miles.
Luckily, I'm not a wimp like LeBron James.
From there, I basically battled cramps, dizziness and nausea until I finally hit the outskirts of Milford just before 5 p.m. I swear I'd never seen Milford look more beautiful. I hit every sprinkler on my way through town -- big shout out to whomever set those up, by the way -- and met Tessa at the start of the bike path.
"Did you have fun?" she asked with a smile, as I stood crouched over my bike, drenched in sweat, legs wobbling, mouth drier than the Sahara, after nine hours of cycling.
"That was tough," I coughed. "I really didn't think it would be a big deal. My legs are like jello!"
"Do you want a banana?"
With two years to reflect on my approach to the 2014 ride, I applied some of the various lessons in advance.
I rode more way more about twice as many miles more than I had before my first RAGBRAI. I paid more attention to what I ate, and I drank nothing but water and lots of it for a few days before. I won't bore you with the details. There's plenty of advice out there for first-time RAGBRAI riders. If you're interested in riding, even for a day, find and follow that advice. It'll make all the difference in the world.
At 5:30 a.m. Sunday, I loaded my bike on the back of my car, grabbed my pack that I'd already stuffed with snacks and water, and started to back out of the drive.
"Whoops!" I said to Tessa as I stopped the car, undid my seatbelt and opened the door. "I forgot something."
I dashed back into our house and emerged with a banana.
"Don't want to forget this."
Tessa though it was a tad early in the morning for such things cracked a smile.
We made our way to Orange City, bucking against the caravan of campers headed northwestward toward Spencer. Not wanting to get too deep into the bumper-to-bumper traffic, I spotted a parking lot near a bike trail on the north side of town and decided that was as good a spot as any to start my day.
As I grabbed my gear and hopped on my bike, Tessa yelled out the car window, "Did you remember sunscreen?"
I waved her off and headed for the trail.
From there, the ride was really innocuous, save for a few funny exchanges:
Throughout the day, I played music on a bluetooth speaker that I had strapped to my pack. While pedaling between Paullina and Primghar, a man beside me asked who the band was. I told him it was Rage Against the Machine.
"Never heard of 'em," he said between heavy breaths, "but it's sure helping me get up this hill!"
Next, on the road between Primghar and Hartley, I saw a guy with an Ireland cycling jersey. I sped up to catch him. When I finally pulled up beside him, I asked, "So, who do you got? McGregor or Mayweather?"
"Man, ask me a real question," he replied. "Are you kidding me?"
I laughed, expecting a witty remark in support of Ireland's latest favorite son.
"Mayweather," he said. "I'm from Grand Rapids."
Grand Rapids, Michigan Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s hometown. Obviously that's not the answer that I'd anticipated.
And finally, while eating a burrito and sharing what seemed to be the only shady bench in downtown Hartley, I was talking with a few guys about where they were from, how nice the weather was and it was BEAUTIFUL and all of the usual stuff, when one of my benchmates, who was previously preoccupied with his phone, exclaimed, "Froomey won the yellow jersey!"
Everyone else on the bench replied, "Who?"
"Chris Froome! He won the yellow jersey."
"What does that mean?"
Though everyone there shared an interest in cycling, apparently no one else on that bench gave a rip about some bike race in France, or the man who won it for the fourth time overall, and the third consecutive. I couldn't help but chuckle. Poor guy.
The last 19-mile stretch from Hartley to Spencer was a little short on scenery save for a stuffed raccoon propped hilariously on the side of the road but the stiff northwest wind gave me a good push to the finish.
I pedaled past the fairgrounds area to get away from the crowd, grabbed a cold, celebratory beer at a bar near the river, and shot Tessa a text. My GPS odometer read 69.35 miles.
When she arrived, she asked me how the ride was.
"Really, it was no big deal," I said. "It wasn't too hot out. The breeze was nice and cool. It was pretty flat. I only remember like two hills the entire day, and that was only because it was uphill AND into the wind. Other than that, it was pretty easy, honestly."
I took my helmet and sunglasses off and hopped in the driver's seat of the car.
"Jesus," Tessa said from the passenger's seat. "Your face is SO red! Did you not wear sunscreen?"
I looked in the rearview mirror. Staring back at me was a red raccoon. My forehead was dotted red from the vents in my helmet. My eyes were white; my nose, cheeks and ears bright red. My face looked like a gingham picnic blanket. Like Donald Trump after a long day of golf with slightly better hair.
But at least I remembered my banana.